In order to practice law, every attorney must take an oath. In order to wear a uniform, every soldier, sailor, marine, and airman must also take an oath. The oaths themselves are strikingly similar – both include statements of support for the constitution and a promise to serve interests outside of one’s self. Veterans serve and defend our country and our rule of law. The constitution and legal system our veterans took an oath to protect should serve them in return.
The legal community has a duty to ensure our veterans and military families know their legal rights and can access the resources they need. There are a number of laws granting unique protections and benefits to our veterans and military families, enacted in acknowledgment and appreciation of their service and sacrifice. Some of these laws alleviate certain civil obligations in order to help military personnel called to active duty focus on their mission. Other laws are intended to give a helping hand to veterans to advance their education or improve their vocational opportunities. These laws all recognize the sacrifices our brave men and women in uniform make in service to us. As lawyers, we must ensure that veterans and military personnel understand the rights they have.
Our veterans can face significant challenges. After more than a decade at war – one of the longest in our nation’s history – the federal Department of Veterans Affairs is receiving a record number of benefit claims. Veterans must contend with record backlogs and many are struggling to make ends meet as they wait. Sadly, veterans are significantly overrepresented among the homeless. Nationally, it is estimated that 1 in every 4 homeless adults served in the military, though veterans are only about 11 percent of the general adult population. The mental health issues some veterans face are no doubt contributing factors to the prevalence of homelessness. The “signature” injuries among post 9/11 era veterans are the invisible wounds of Post –Traumatic Stress and Traumatic Brain Injury.
Many of the challenges veterans face can become legal needs. Sometimes these needs will be similar to those of someone who never wore a uniform. Other times, the needs may be directly related to military service. Veterans, particularly those struggling with homelessness or living on a fixed income, may be unable to afford an attorney. According to the Legal Services Corporation, local legal aid offices and LSC-funded programs see many low-income veterans in need of civil legal assistance. Serving these individuals starts with identifying them as veterans, recognizing the unique needs and challenges they may be facing, and understanding the resources and benefits they may have earned because of their military service.
As Attorney General, improving how my office serves our state’s veterans and military families is a priority. This is not just a public policy issue; it is also personal. Like many others, I come from a family of veterans. My father was in the Navy, both my grandfathers were veterans, and many of my uncles fought in WWII. My family’s experience instilled in me a respect and appreciation for military service.
As part of the effort to improve the way we serve our veterans and military families, I was pleased to recently announce the release of a new Military & Veterans Legal Resource Guide. This new guide summarizes in one place some of the many legal rights, protections, and resources available to Washington’s veterans and military families. It is designed to help inform and educate military personnel and veterans about the legal rights and protections that may be available to them. It also contains information about where veterans can find services and legal assistance. Civil legal aid attorneys and advocates may also find the guide a useful resource. The guide is available online at www.atg.wa.gov/VeteranMilitaryResources.aspx.
Our hope at the Attorney General’s Office is that the guide is a useful tool for veterans and military families, and that it reinforces how much we appreciate what they do for our country and our rule of law. However, this guide is no replacement for legal aid services or pro bono work, and many veterans continue to need legal representation. As the legal community recognizes National Pro Bono Week and lawyers look for opportunities to fulfill their oaths and commitment to service, it is important to recognize the legal needs of those who took an oath to serve our country.
Bob Ferguson is Washington State’s 18th Attorney General. As the state’s chief legal officer, he directs over 1,100 attorneys and professional staff in providing legal services to state agencies, the Governor, and the Legislature. Prior to being elected Attorney General, Bob served as a member of King County Council where he sponsored the King County Veterans and Human Services Levy.